Research done in the last 50 years or so has shown that music is a very effective method of reaching out to those who are otherwise emotionally, psychologically, or neurologically isolated from the rest of society- and thus, in this case, autistic people.
The obvious question that follows once this sinks in is that “Why?”
Why does music elicit such a strong response? Why is music therapy so effective in helping children with autism?
This is no trivial question. Many mundane tasks that are ordinarily taken for granted can be quite daunting for those struggling with autism because they require regular functioning of either the left or the right brain, which is a luxury they do not have. A typical example: speech and visual skills.
Music appreciation and playing music requires both sides of the brain, purporting that it should be twice as daunting for those struggling with autism. Instead we have the opposite.
Dr Martha R. Herbert, a professor at Harvard Medical School, gives an explanation to this phenomenon, saying “Brain cells need to follow a regular rhythm to produce a response in the brain. For people with autism, there is less coordination of this rhythm from one point to another. Music helps by creating an organized and regular stimulus to the brain that helps the brain get organized to keep track of the rhythm.”
Much more than lending the ability to nod to a beat or follow a symphony, music has been shown to be remarkably therapeutic to children struggling with autism.
According to the Empirical Musicology Review which published a German paper on it, there are two areas of improvement evident when autistic children begin music therapy: language skills and socio-behaviour
With consistent and effective application of sound therapy, autistic children have been known to:
- Show a greater interest in making contact and communicating with the people around them.
- Interact with their family members, become more affectionate and appropriate.
- Increase eye contact and show a longer attention span.
- Make the first move, initiating contact rather than waiting to be approached.
- Begin to laugh and cry at appropriate times.
- Show increasing responsiveness to what they are being taught and to their caretakers, once they begin to emerge from their emotional bubble.
- For those who are unable to speak, vocalisation gradually increases to the level where they can scream, and then they start babbling.
- Those who can speak experience an increase in mastery of language. They may start using pronouns like “I” and “You”, as well as first names.
So what genre or music works best for your autistic child?
According to Harvard Medical the most important thing is that the child likes the music in question. It does not necessarily have to be classical music for it to be beneficial.
Some music therapists have used Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’ and Justin Bieber’s ‘Baby’ to great effect.
Teaching the piano to autistic children has also been shown to be of great benefit as well since it makes use of the mirror neurone system to process simultaneous somatosensory, visual, auditory and motoric information to execute the actions.